“There is nobody here but your body, dear,” sings Stuart Murdoch on “The Party Line,” the third track on Belle and Sebastian’s new album Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance. The simple cleverness of the line captures what many B&S fans (myself included) most appreciate about the Scottish band’s 19-year career. However, the fact that the lyric repeats over a synth loop and a sequenced drum track creates a conundrum for those of us who have followed Murdoch & Co. for the last two decades.
Full disclosure: I don’t just like Belle and Sebastian. I love them. They have released at least one perfect album (1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister), recorded at least one perfect song (1997’s “Le Pastie de la Bourgeoisie”), and maintained a level of excellence unmatched by any band of the last two decades. Certainly they have taken a few left turns along the way. 2003’s Dear Catastrophe Waitress boasted (as its closing track!) a kitchen-sink production number called “Stay Loose” that I have probably listened to 10,000 times. And 2010’s Belle and Sebastian Write About Love featured, in addition to brilliant string work by Eric Gorfain’s Section Quartet, some big synths and disco beats, but those elements lingered in the background, allowing Stevie Jackson’s underrated guitar work and Murdoch’s consistently brilliant lyrics to do the heavy lifting.
Lots of music. No stinkers.
And Girls in Peacetime… is by no means a stinker. It’s just that about half of it is a straight-up dance record. And some people are going to love it — ’80s revivalists, for instance. And, as often happens with some of my favorite ’80s albums (fellow Scots Aztec Camera’s 1984 album Knife comes to mind), I find myself wondering how the songs would sound if stripped of all the triggered drums and studio trickery.
I imagine that if I were to sit down in a room with Murdoch and hear “Play for Today” or “The Party Line” on a nylon-string guitar, I might count them among my favorites of the countless killer tunes he’s written. As it is, I feel as if I must listen to these songs in a discotheque in order to “hear” them properly. Which is unlikely to happen. Though, after repeated listenings, I’ll admit, “The Party Line” has really grown on me. “I am leaving many people feeling worse than before,” speaks to me over the disco thump.
Dance music is, by definition, frivolous. And the great catalogue of B&S songs has been saddled with many backhanded adjectives by critics over the years: fey, twee, etc. But even a song as apparently silly as 1997’s “Dog on Wheels,” for instance, could never be described as frivolous. The vast majority of Belle and Sebastian songs register as charming, honest, emotional and often quite moving. As a result of my inability to reconcile this conundrum — Belle and Sebastian through the filter of synth- and loop-heavy production, (much of it likely due to the influence of album producer Ben H. Allen, who has also worked with Animal Collective and Gnarls Barkley, among others) — a handful of songs on the record (e.g., “Enter Sylvia Plath” and “Play for Today”) simply don’t work for me.
The good news, however, is that there are quite a few fantastic additions to the canon here! Highlights include opener “Nobody’s Empire,” a gripping account of a crippling fear overcome. The second track, “Allie,” is classic B&S:: bouncy bass, propulsive drums and a cool dynamic that moves between small and quiet and big and loud. “Ever Had a Little Faith?” sounds like old-school Belle and Sebastian, in a good way, and “The Everlasting Muse” moves from a samba verse to a chorus that could be pulled straight from Fiddler on the Roof. The outro refrain from “The Everlasting Muse” offers up a possible insight into the impetus behind the band’s foray into the world of dance music: “She says be popular/play pop, and you will win my love.”
Having digested Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, I will do as we all do in the modern era: add my favorite tracks to my own personal, ever-growing playlist of essential Belle and Sebastian songs and leave the rest for the kids on the dance floor.
God bless you, Stuart Murdoch. You’ve earned the right to do whatever the hell you like. Please don’t stop any time soon.